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Sunday, 27 May 2018

Fanzine Focus XII: Wormskin No. 5

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

The Wormskin fanzine, published by Necrotic Gnome Productions is written for use with Labyrinth Lord and issue by issue, details an area known as Dolmenwood, a mythical wood, an ancient place of tall trees and thick soil, rich in fungi and festooned with moss and brambles and rife with dark whimsy. Wormskin No. 1 was published in December, 2015, and was followed by Wormskin No. 2 in March, 2016. Both issues introduced the setting with a set of articles rich in flavour and atmosphere, but lacking a certain focus in that the region itself, Dolmenwood, was not detailed. Fortunately, in March, 2017, Necrotic Gnome Productions released Welcome to Dolmenwood, a free introduction to the setting. Further, Wormskin No. 3 and Wormskin No. 4, published in July, 2016 and Winter 2016 respectively, improved hugely upon the first and second issues, together providing a better introduction to Dolmenwood, giving some excellent answers to some very good questions about the setting before delving into what is the biggest secret of Dolmenwood.

Published in the winter of 2017, Wormskin No. 5, continues the series’ exploration of the setting, this time providing a detailed examination of one of the major factions in Dolmenwood, a guide to gaming across the wooded region, and descriptions of a particular area. The faction is the Drune, detailed in ‘The Watchers of the Wood’, a sinister cabal of hooded sorcerers whose mantra is “Seek, Know, Keep” and code is secrecy. In turn, their lifestyle, beliefs, occult powers, relationships with the other powers in and around Dolemenwood, schemes and goals, and rumours about them are all given a page or so’s coverage. It has felt as if the Drune have been lurking just behind the next tree, adjusting each dolmen and manipulating the ley lines which run through the region, ever since the opening pages of Wormskin No. 1. So that this information very much puts another piece into the giant jigsaw puzzle that is Dolmenwood and really helps a Labyrinth Lord create encounters and scenarios involving them. 

This is followed by ‘Hex-Crawling in Dolmenwood’, a guide to running procedural adventures in Dolmenwood, handling party activities as part of its exploration of the region or movement through it. This covers actions such as travel, exploration, interaction, camping, foraging, and so on, as well as weather, random events, mishaps, and visibility. It is quick and it is to the point, and again, it it feels as if this could and should have appeared in an earlier issue. It is promised that it will be expanded upon, but this is more than workable.

The bulk of the issue is devoted to the strangeness of six hexes—‘Hag’s Addle’—and their major inhabitants, ‘The Hag of the Marsh’. The former details the point where the river Hameth trickles into the Lake Longmere and its marsh covered banks with their twisting paths. It is the one place where the Longmere Squid can be fished for, but is also known to be infested by Boggins, amphibious things covered in pondweed with batrachian arms, which gibber in a loon-like fashion and like to feast on warm-blooded sentients. The northern bank is said to be haunted by a witch who ensorcells men with the dirges she plays on a fiddle—though what this is more fully explained in Wormskin No. 4—whilst a strange stone, untended by the Drune, stands beyond the bank, and ancient monuments can found elsewhere. At the heart of the region is another boggy region, this home to the Hag’s Hut, said to contain a door to the fairy realm. It is, of course, home to the Hag, a women of great age and fairy descent who never appears the same twice and is charged with guarding the hut. Said to be a stealer of children, the Hag can be haggled with and her favour gained, although this takes some effort. As well as describing her Hut, the article details her magical items and the rumours associated with her. Rounding out the article is a set of adventure hooks for the Labyrinth Lord to develop. There is plenty of detail and weirdness and playable content in both articles, and as much as the Hag is a monster, this is definitely one that can be bargained with. Roleplaying that should be fun for both Labyrinth Lord and players alike.

Rounding out the issue is ‘Monsters of the Wood’, which provides the stats and descriptions of many of the creatures described earlier in the issue. This includes both Boggins and Drune, although the write-up of the latter seems slightly underwhelming given the richness of detail in the earlier ‘The Watchers of the Wood’. Other creatures include the Brambling, essentially a humanoid thicket in service to the Drune, and the Flammbraggyrd, sort of flamming soldier sprits bound to the hearth. None of these are just some monsters. They do appear earlier in the fanzine and are written into the setting.

Physically, Wormskin No. 5 is a well-presented book. The writing is clear, the layout clean, the illustrations good, and the use of colour is just enough to set it apart from other fanzines in terms of production values. Despite a couple of the articles feeling as if they should have been written earlier, the only problem with the issue is surprisingly subjective. The fanzine is essentially a ‘partwork’, its articles all part of a whole, but not necessarily presented in the order they would appear if they were in an actual sourcebook. With five issues—and more—released to date, there is the sense that you should be able to take them apart and put them together in some semblance of logical order. 


Of course, every issue of Wormskin adds further detail to the setting of Dolmenwood, but with Wormskin No. 5, two of the articles—‘The Watchers of the Wood’ and ‘Hex-Crawling in Dolmenwood’—fill in holes in the setting and answer questions which have lurking unanswered since the first issue. That in addition to being good articles both. The other articles in Wormskin No. 5 are rich in detail and flavour, and altogether, they further explore the brythonic weirdness that is Dolmenwood.

—oOo—


Necrotic Gnome Productions, together with Quality Beast, will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.